Israeli rapper Sha'anan Streett: 'Another day in a crazy country'

Jake Wallis Simons was interviewing Israeli rap star Sha'anan Streett by Zoom. Then rockets started exploding near the singers's Jerusalem home.


Sha’anan Streett, the frontman of Hadag Nahash, Israel’s most popular hip-hop band, has been speaking for only 10 minutes when the blare of an air raid siren backgrounds his words. He pauses and cocks his head. In his hand, his glass of pear liquor wavers.

Then there are two loud booms.

“This is super strange,” he says. “Hopefully we don’t explode now. Another day in a crazy country. We’re a bunch of idiots.”

All of this is coming via Zoom on my iPad. It feels strange to see violence unfolding in real time, in another person’s life far away.

The walls of his building, Streett is saying, are very strong. No need to abort. We try to continue the interview — we’d been speaking about Covid, and creativity, and Israel’s artistic renaissance, and beer — but then his 12-year-old daughter comes on to the screen, crying because of the rockets. He hugs her. We agree to speak again in a few hours.

Streett is wearing a black T-shirt and baseball cap, thick silver necklace, and his trademark mutton chops sideburns and chin puff beard, both of which have gone grey since the last time we met, seven years before. He could have been mistaken for a graphic designer on his way to a fancy-dress party. When you meet him, you’re torn between judging his dress sense and admiring it.

The rapper is 50 now, and still doing it. He has been the frontman of Hadag Nahash, the iconic leftwing hip-hop and funk outfit, since 1996. During lockdown he launched a new website, created a chilli-flavoured beer with a brewery in Beit Shemesh, recorded and released a new solo album, and rediscovered how to “keep it real, funky and fun”, something he had almost forgotten in the routine of being a pop star.

Streett’s 25-year career has yielded a string of awards and hits. His 2004 song Sticker Song, written with novelist David Grossman, catapulted the band to fame and remains a firm radio favourite. He has threaded a left-wing activist message into his music throughout, from his very first song —Shalom, Salaam, Peace — to his newest single, an anti-Netanyahu track called Bomba, which was released last summer.

Our interview takes place on Monday night, after Israeli police entered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Hamas rocket barrage began. The night that everything changed. A few hours later, we continue the interview by phone, and this time we go straight into politics.

“A lot of people from Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs, were dreading this day,” he says, referring to Jerusalem Day of May 10, which traditionally marks the unification of the city under Israel with a march to the Western Wall.

“It was in the air. I can’t understand how you can celebrate the unity of a city when one side is partying and the other side has nothing to party about. Where is the unification? It’s all bogus. It’s not real.”

As a lifelong Jerusalemite who likes to spend as much time among Arabs as he does Jews — he used to run a bar downtown, which was where he met his wife, Bali, co-founder of the inclusive One Shekel music festival — this is a subject close to his heart. “It’s been a big, fat lie for a while,” he says in his distinctive high-pitched, husky voice. “This city is not united. It’s not unified.

“Enormous numbers of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are not proper citizens, and experience discrimination on a daily basis. And the Jews want to march right through Damascus Gate with 40,000 people? It has bad news written all over it every year. And this year it is worse.

“It’s never a pleasant day. It is not right to put ideology before people. It was one thing in decades past, when we needed to save lives and build a country. But that is not the case any more. We have a country, a capital, a city. Why do we need to poke fingers in people’s eyes?”

That very morning, before the rioting started in earnest in Jerusalem, Streett had been in Arab East Jerusalem for an Arabic lesson. He had left just ten minutes before the violence started. “I love that part of Jerusalem,” he says. “Not as a conqueror — I love that the Arabs share the city with me. It shouldn’t be any other way. That is the proper way. We need to take pride in it, not to be afraid of it, not to want to make the Arab population smaller, or smaller than small.”

His new solo album, which he recorded in Nazareth with Palestinian producers, includes a song called Broken Arabic, a testament to his attempts to learn the language and the importance of doing so. “Without Arabic, communication here is limited,” he says. “That’s the main reason I studied Arabic in the first place, so that I won’t need the government, or our media or our press, to tell me what the Arabs think.

“If I speak Arabic, I can hear it from them. Even on a small scale, I want to know what’s happening around me. Jews form about two per cent of the population of the Middle East. Yet we can’t speak the language that runs the show around us. We need the government to translate and tell us what’s going on. That’s wrong.”

Streett’s children have always attended Arabic-Hebrew schools, and can speak both languages fluently. Although he himself served as a combat soldier in the early 1990s, he is uncomfortable about his oldest son’s upcoming army service. “I told him if he wants to go, I’ll support him,” he says. “I’m happy that I have one more year to ponder it, though. It’s not easy. He doesn’t want to become a soldier to kill Arabs or anything, he just sees it as a ticket into the Israeli mainstream. How’s it going to turn out? I don’t know. Let’s talk next year.”

Despite the bigotry, corruption and cronyism that he identifies in his lyrics, the veteran rapper describes himself as an optimist. He has bounced back from the strictures of lockdown and has been on stage again since April. He is feeling better than ever.

“It’s a total trip,” he says. “Being back on stage is extremely moving. I was singing at a concert and I found myself asking myself, what’s happening? Why am I having all these emotions?

“It was both natural and unnatural. I had 20 years on stage, then suddenly a year with nothing. So getting back on stage, my body knew what it needed to do, my throat knew how to sing. I was not new to this. But on the other hand, I had been out of it for so long that I felt every word, every second, and I was loving every moment.

“It was a very special time. I tell other performers, when you get back on stage it will be a f***ing trip. You can’t imagine.”

When it comes to politics, however, his cynicism is ever-present. “It was starting to look like Netanyahu was finished,” he says. “But Israelis tend to align when there is a security emergency.

“I don’t want to be sarcastic, because lives are at stake and people are injured, but it would not surprise me if the government said, given the crisis, let’s keep the status quo for a year. There will be a temporary government and Netanyahu will remain PM.

“It’s very possible.”

He pauses, seemingly trying to resist the allures of conspiracy theory. “I’ve heard people say that Netanyahu is doing these things intentionally,” he says. “I’ve heard it.”


Sha’anan Streett has recently released his third solo album ‘Ideals’



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